The French Navy scuttle their Fleet at Toulon

The French Fleet burning at Toulon after the German attempt to seize the ships on the 27th November 1942

The ‘Vichy regime’ in France had come to terms with Hitler following the occupation of France in 1940. Only half of France was occupied by the Nazis, the remainder was nominally an independent nation ruled from the town of Vichy.

The French armed forces were to play no further part in the war according to the Armistice. Yet the British had come to blows with its former Ally at Oran and in Madagascar. Most recently the Torch landings had brought France into conflict with the USA, before finally the colonies decided to come to terms with the Allied occupying forces.

As a result of the occupation of French Morocco and Algeria Hitler decided to occupy the whole of France. The French were forced into choosing a new stance. Did they stand on the sidelines and allow Germany to seize the French Naval Fleet – or were they to act decisively to deny their ships to Germany?

The crew of a panzer IV look on helplessly as the ships burn.

The French battleship Marseillaise sunk and burning at Toulon

There were some who argued that the Fleet should have sailed to join the Allies but they did not prevail. On the 11th, as German and Italian troops encircled Toulon, the Vichy Secretary of the Navy, Admiral Auphan, ordered Admiral Jean de Laborde and Admiral André Marquis to:

– Oppose, without spilling of blood, the entry of foreign troops in any of the establishments, airbases and buildings of the Navy;
– Similarly oppose entry of foreign troops aboard ships of the Fleet; find settlements by means of local negotiation; and
– If the former proved impossible, to scuttle the ships.

The decision was forced on the 27th when German tanks approached the Naval base.

The French managed to scuttle the greater part of their ships: 3 battleships, 7 cruisers 15 destroyers, 13 torpedo boats, 6 sloops, 12 submarines, 9 patrol boats, 19 auxiliary ships, 1 school ship, 28 tugs, 4 floating cranes. The ships were not just scuttled but damaged so significantly that they were put beyond use.

Only 4 submarines, 3 destroyers, 39 small ships were successfully seized by Germany. Casualties amongst the French were 12 killed and 26 wounded.

Earlier in the war:

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